Royal Ontario Museum / University of Toronto
TEX. DEPT. PUBLICATIONS
/ keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are what and why and when
And how and where and who. rudyard kipling
ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM SERIES
WHAT ? WHY ? WHEN ? HOW ? WHERE ? WHO ?
1 K. B. Brett: women's costume in early Ontario
2 Gerald Stevens: early Ontario glass
3 Walter M. Tovell: the Niagara escarpment
4 R. R. H. Lemon: fossils in Ontario
5 W. E. Swinton: dinosaurs of Canada
6 L. S. Russell: the mastodon
© The Governors of the University of Toronto, 1965
This series was edited in the Information Services of the Royal Ontario Museum by
Ian Montagnes. It was designed by Harold Kurschenska, and printed at the University
of Toronto Press. Photographs in this booklet are by Lee Warren, rom photographer.
cover: Detail of The Horseshoe Falls from Goat Island, an aquatint by C. Hunt
after a drawing in the 1830s by James Cockburn. From the Canadiana collections
of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Quotation from the just so stories by Rudyard Kipling, by permission of
Mrs. George Bambridge and The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited
in Early Ontario
by K. B. BRETT
were these clothes worn?
The earliest styles described in this booklet came to Upper Canada with
the first settlers in 1784; the latest may have graced a lady of fashion on
Confederation Day in 1867. Between these dates Ontario grew from a few
scattered military and trading posts to a rapidly developing, wealthy, agri-
cultural and industrial province. When you stop to think of it, it's a wonder
that any of the early costumes have come down to us at all. Usually it has
been only through luck or (as with a wedding gown) some sentimental
attachment. Money was scarce in pioneer days, and supplies often long
delayed; most clothes were worn until they were beyond repair, and then
finally cut up for rag rugs or patchwork quilts. Even those which have
survived have in many cases been altered. Fortunately, we have many more
examples of costume — and hence a broader picture of fashion at various
levels — from the later and more prosperous years.
Some dresses from the first half of the 19th century were made in Britain
and brought to Canada when the family settled here, so that their date
coincides with the year a particular area was opened. In general, however,
it is impossible to tell the exact year of very many Ontario dresses. Instead
we must search for similar styles in portraits, prints and drawings which
left Red wool cape, made about 1790, is semi-circular, has a small vandyKea
cape and a high standup collar set away from the neck to allow for a bouffant
kerchief, right Embroidered muslin gown was worn at a ball in 1805. The
short bodice, trained skirt and fullness at the centre back are all typical of this
period but alterations have been made to keep up with changing fashions.
Insets of netting around the hem and sleeves were added later. (Niagara
Historical Society Collection.)
themselves are dated — and which may also tell us how the costumes were
worn, and what accessories and hair styles went with them. The clothes
illustrated here, if not firmly dated, are given the year when the style was
most generally worn although they could have, and may well have, been
made a few years later. All but two are from the Royal Ontario Museum;
smaller but significant collections may be seen in the Niagara Historical
Society Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Jordan Historical
Museum of the Twenty.
WHERE were they worn?
The growth of Upper Canada was not even. Some parts developed early,
some late; some quickly, some slowly; and this is reflected in the costumes
which have come down to us. Most of the early clothing was worn in the
Niagara district, one of the province's oldest communities, which had a
certain elegance when Toronto was still a dream. From later decades
dresses, shawls, bonnets and accessories survive from many parts and in far
greater numbers. All the costumes illustrated were worn in Ontario though
not all were made here.
In the early years the fashionable world of Upper Canada was restricted to
a small circle of military and government officials, in which new arrivals
particularly took pains to keep abreast of the latest style. But as the century
advanced, would-be ladies of fashion could be found in ever-increasing
numbers in Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton, and other growing towns, the
trading and business centres in closest contact with London and New York.
"The dress of Canadians is as much like to fashions carried out in England
as they can possibly make it", wrote a visitor in 1860.
Women in the rural areas, cut off from the outside world, had little time
to bother with changes in style. They were at first far too occupied with
winning an existence from the forest, and later with the day-to-day activities
of home and community. These busy and practical women spent most of
their time in simple and serviceable dresses, of gingham or printed cotton
when available, but more often of home spun and hand woven wools and
linens — plain, checked or striped — which they made themselves. What
thought they had for fashion was displayed in the best silk dress, the pride
of every woman who owned one. With judicious alteration from time to
time, it served every social occasion for many a season.
were they made?
In some dresses the hand of the skilled professional is revealed, while others
are frankly home-made; many are the work of the competent seamstress in
the family. Almost without exception women in 19th century Ontario had
to be able to sew and make dresses. They did it well, and were ingenious at
altering and making over. Unfortunately information rarely survives as to
who made any particular piece of clothing, although tailors and dressmakers
were established in many communities.
Hats, shoes, stockings, gloves, shawls and even ready-made gowns were
imported by merchants from England and New York. A red cape in the
Museum's collection was bought in the first shop opened in Niagara-on-the-
Lake. Storekeepers also offered dressmaking supplies, and after each new
Pencil drawing of Miss S.
Macdonnell, dated 1810,
shows a long-sleeved dress
finished with a ruffle at the
throat. Round her neck and
crossing in front she wears
a small folded kerchief and,
over her shoulder, a black
scarf probably of embroidered
net. Her flat slippers are
trimmed with dark rosettes.
(Niagara Historical Society
shipment advertised a dazzling array of materials, ribbons, laces and
feathers; but it must be remembered that such shipments were infrequent
and popular items quickly ran short.
vtf did fashions change?
The whys and wherefores of women's fashion have long intrigued the social
and sartorial historian. Changes were not caused by whims or fancies: they
expressed women's changing attitude to life, and echoed the taste and styles
of other arts of their period.
In the 19th century, Ontario followed English fashions, but because life
was simpler here than in England (where in turn tastes were conservative
compared with those of Paris, the leader of fashion), costume too tended
to be simple and more restrained in decoration. The style-conscious also
were hindered by difficult living conditions, short supplies and climate.
Home spun and woven linens and woollens, even buckskin, played their
part. Yet there was no shortage of fashion news: letters from home related
tidbits and enclosed patterns; parcels contained gowns and bonnets; visitors,
traders and travellers carried tales of the latest creations; newspaper adver-
left Ball gown of 1825 was made of soft pink figured silk with a border
pattern. The wide puffed sleeves may have been stuffed with down sleeve pillows.
right Pink and white silk gauze dress of about 1835 was brought from
England when the family settled in Ontario.
tisements and the fashion plates of women's periodicals provided graphic
details. The would-be lady of fashion could keep up to date. Any time lag
in style was caused by the way of life — often a hard one — and a practical
sense of values. Fashion was not of primary importance to most women and
to be a little out of date was of no consequence.
was worn :
The costumes themselves tell us most about what women wore in Upper
Canada — the kinds of material and trimmings, the cut and quality of dress-
making. Paintings, drawings and prints help complete the picture and
account books, inventories, family letters, journals, memoirs, wills, bequests
and newspaper advertisements all provide valuable evidence of fabrics and
clothing obtainable. The following brief notes cover only the main structural
Many Ontario por-
traits show the decora-
tive housecaps worn
indoors. This one of
fine muslin, edged with
lace and finished with
a striped gauze ribbon
bow on top, dates from
the early 1830s. The
ties of the cap are
behind the ears and
small pearl earrings
show. A sheer muslin
kerchief is worn, held
in front with a brooch.
changes in fashion from the 1780s to 1867 and are, where possible, related
to costume worn here.
The 1780s saw the gradual disappearance of the traditional 18th century
style — a two-piece dress comprising an overdress with fitted bodice and
elbow length sleeves, worn over rigidly boned stays and a matching or
contrasting hooped or panniered petticoat — and its replacement by a one-
piece dress closing down the front. From this and the chemise dress, an
innovation of this decade which could be slipped on over the head, the high
waisted gown of classical simplicity developed before the turn of the
century. The bodice remained close fitting during the 1780s but its rigid
lines were softened by the use of lighter and plainer materials, a voluminous
buffant fichu and a wide sash, and sometimes in the chemise dress a draw-
string under the bustline. This and the sash helped accentuate the rising
waistline. Sleeves were long or to just below the elbow and finished with a
frill; the skirt, though still full, flowed out behind over a bustle. By the end
of the century the bulky petticoats and all traditional stiffness had gone and
women's dress, with high waist and vertical lines, had come under the
influence of the Classical Revival which had already left its mark on archi-
tecture, painting and the decorative arts in England.
Brown figured silk and wool dress of about
1839 shows the change in sleeve introduced
in the late '30s, and the wide low neckline
which went out of fashion in the 1840s
except for evening wear. The front part of
the bodice has been adapted for use by
a nursing mother.
During the first ten years of the 19th century the feminine silhouette
remained straight and slim. Dresses were simply cut with a very short
bodice, usually tying behind with tapes run through the back of the high
waist and wide neck. For daytime wear the neck was filled to the throat with
a tucker or kerchief. Sleeves were short or, for outdoor wear, very long and
narrow. The skirt hung straight down in front and at the sides, and was
gathered, or pleated to the bodice at the back. Ball dresses were trained, a
fashion that went out at the end of the decade.
White cottons, particularly fine Indian muslins, were the most favoured
materials but for practical daytime wear printed cottons, checked ginghams
and linens, and probably homespuns, were worn. Ball dresses, usually of
muslin, were trimmed with embroidery, insets of lace, or a narrow
embroidered panel down the front. Silks, when obtainable, were soft and
thin and either plain or lightly patterned. They were usually white, but
yellow, pale blues, pinks and greens were also fashionable.
By the end of the first decade trimmings on skirt and sleeve were more
elaborate. This was the beginning of a trend towards wider shoulders and
hemline which in the next two decades resulted in a very angular silhouette.
From about 1820 the waistline began to drop. For evening wear sleeves
Checked green, violet,
black and white taffeta
dress of the late 1840s had
two bodices. The one for
daytime wear is in the
form of a jacket, and has
separate sleeves of the
same material which could
be worn instead of wide
muslin ones. The evening
bodice with back opening
would probably have had
a little narrow lace at the
neck and sleeve openings.
Its pointed front fits over
the yoked waistband of the lined skirt, and the fine pleating (then called
gauging), shows below.
' y :
were short and puffed and skirts more elaborately trimmed. With these
changes stiffer materials were required and taffeta and velvet returned to
favour in the 1820s for evening wear. Striped, checked and printed cottons
were the usual daytime wear.
The fashionable outdoor garments from about 1795 were the pelisse,
which resembled a coat, and the spencer. The pelisse, in the first decade
of the 19th century, was usually shorter than the dress beneath it and hung
loosely from the shoulders. In the next two decades it was full length,
waisted, long sleeved and finished with a collar and often a small cape. By
the 1830s it was really a gown which opened down the front. The spencer
Brown homespun dress of the 1850s was made by a professional dressmaker in
a small town. Gathering at the front of the bodice came in early in that decade
Royal blue taffeta ball
dress of the late 1850s
was worn for one season
in London and then sent
to a sister in Ontario. It
has flounces patterned in
wliite a disposition.
was a diminutive jacket which came only to the waistline. With long sleeves
and a collar it was worn outdoors but with short sleeves and made of silk or
net, it served to dress up a simple little gown. The most practical outdoor
garment, however, and probably the one most commonly worn, was the
traditional woollen cloak or cape, usually red, which was warm and all
Bonnets and caps were small in the first part of the century and slowly
increased in size. Brims were widest in the early '30s. Many portraits of the
1820s and '30s show elaborately trimmed and starched caps which were
worn indoors and for evening wear.
Both sleeves and skirt continued to widen until about 1835 when the
sleeve, with its gradually dropping shoulder line, collapsed and the fullness
slipped to the lower part of the arm. Variations of this style lingered on to
Fashion plate for March 1866 comes from Godey's Lady's Book, a U.S.
periodical which was to be found in many Ontario homes. Each issue contained
patterns for jackets, blouses and other accessories, and was a source of
inspiration to both dressmakers and needlewomen.
the end of the decade. Ann Langton, living on Sturgeon Lake in 1839,
wrote to her brother in England about altering a wide sleeved dress: "If,
however, I have not succeeded in fashioning the sleeves very gracefully,
I have at least attained the object of the alteration, and got a neat little cape
out of them." The skirt, with more and more petticoats beneath it, con-
tinued to increase in size and by 1840 had taken on the dome-like shape
it was to keep until about 1860.
By 1840 the bodice had lengthened, was becoming stiffly rigid and more
heavily boned. It had sloping shoulders and was deeply pointed in front,
which helped to give the desired impression of length. This fashion held
until the late 1840s when the two-piece dress with a basqued jacket, which
buttoned or hooked from throat to waist, came in. These dresses sometimes
had a second bodice for evening wear. The neckline for daytime wear
Bonnets trace the changing sizes and shapes of three decades. The large grey
silk bonnet was made in the early 1830s, the little one of blue velvet and straw
in the late '50s. Veils also shrank in size. The small straw hat of the 1860s
was probably worn by a young girl.
throughout the decade was high but the wide low neck of the 1830s con-
tinued for evening wear, often finished with a lace bertha. Sleeves were
straight during the first half and then began to flare out at the wrist. Under
these were worn white cotton undersleeves, often with a matching collar,
both trimmed with embroidery. The round full skirt was untrimmed until
the middle of the decade when the flounced skirt with border patterns a
disposition came in and was very stylish for the next 15 years.
The bodice of the 1850s was shorter and less pointed than that of the
1 840s but, from the second half of the decade, was pointed back and front.
Sleeves were wider and into them were fitted voluminous undersleeves
gathered to a wristband or a cuff. Closed full sleeves, gathered to a wrist-
band, were also worn and from them developed the shaped sleeve, cut in
two pieces, in the early 1860s. The skirt, closely gathered at the waist,
reached its greatest circumference after the supporting crinoline frame was
introduced in 1856.
Dresses with separate bodice and skirt continued in fashion into the
1860s, but the waist line was higher and, on day dresses, straight. Evening
The underwear shown here is
that most generally worn in the
19th century. The linen chemise
at the back is typical of the first
half of the 19th century; that
in front, with gathered sleeves
and gusseted front is, like the
cotton petticoat and linen
drawers, mid-century. The
cotton underbodice, worn over
the corset, has machine stitched
tucks. It dates from the 1860s.
gowns often continued to have the pointed bodice. The wide open sleeve
remained in fashion but the long shaped one was most characteristic. Both
were often trimmed with fancy braid and fringe and adorned with epaulettes.
In the 1860s the skirt began to straighten at the front and flatten over
the hips where large pleats and gored panels helped to reduce bulkiness at
the v/aist. The unwieldy crinoline frame remained in fashion but was not
much worn in Ontario except in towns. A special occasion, such as the visit
of the Prince of Wales in 1860, no doubt brought out many a fine dress
mounted on a crinoline. Skirts were plain until the late '50s when two or
more rows of frills just above the hem came in, and continued to be worn
during the early 1860s.
A great variety of materials are found in dresses of the 1840-60 period.
Silks included large-checked taffetas, figured satins and other fancy weaves
in the 1840s. Plain and shot taffetas, wide patterned stripes (called ribbon
silks) and silks with woven border patterns, a disposition for flounced
skirts, were representative of the '50s though border silks appeared in the
late '40s. Chine a la branche silks came in about 1860 though plain and
Wide embroidered muslin
sleeves with matching collar
were worn in the J 850s; the
narrower cotton ones are a
little earlier. Both the em-
broidered and the knitted linen
collar are mid- 19th century.
The embroidered muslin wed-
ding nightcap was worn in
striped silks continued to be much worn. About 1840 wool became a
fashionable dress fabric. Both figured and printed wools were worn between
1840 and 1867 and it is from this period that we find the checked and
striped Ontario wool homespuns. For summer there were checked, striped,
and printed cottons with small sprig, spot and paisley patterns. The inven-
tion of coal tar dyes introduced, from 1856 on, a whole new range of bright
and strident colours, and by 1860 two of the first to be perfected, magenta
and mauve, were very fashionable. Solferino pink, named for the battle in
1859, the year when it was invented, was popular in the 1860s.
The outdoor garment most generally worn from the 1830s to about
1870 was the shawl. Many handsome examples have survived as family
treasures and often date back to the year the family arrived in Canada. The
finest were the handwoven Kashmirs imported from India, but the most
common were similar but less expensive English and Scottish makes from
Norwich and Paisley which were drawloom or jacquard woven. Printed
shawls of wool were worn as inexpensive and lighter weight versions of the
The earliest shawls, made in Britain to resemble those of Kashmir, had narrow
patterned borders, but by the 1860s almost the entire shawl was covered with
rich designs. That at the back, sent from England about 1840, was probably
made in Norwich. The very elaborate one in front is a Paisley shawl of the '60s.
Kashmir and Paisley shawls, or of silk and wool gauze for summer wear.
Their designs of flowery cones were echoed in the silks and printed cottons
of the period and have never really gone out of fashion since.
A great variety of loose fitting mantles and jackets, capes, and shaped
cloaks flowed out over the full skirts of the 1850s and 60s. Perhaps the
most decorative was the burnoose, a cape of oriental origin with a false
hood trimmed with tassels and held at the throat by cords.
Bonnets were fashionable through 1 840-67 but much smaller than in the
1830s. The brim closed in against the face in the 1840s, and in the 1850s
shrank back off the face. At the same time the crown diminished and lay
further and further back on the head until only the wide ribbon tied under
the chin appeared to hold it in place. Straw hats, worn in summer against
the sun and for work in the fields, became fashionable for the young in the
late 1850s but bonnets remained de rigeur for formal wear. Indoors an
unending variety of caps was worn, usually of white cotton, trimmed with
frills, laces and ribbons; they either tied under the chin or had lappets
hanging at the sides. Flowery wreaths and decorated head bands were worn
with ball dresses.
The chemise was the main undergarment of this period and was worn
next to the skin. Always of a simple straight cut pattern, it varied in width
and neckline in accordance with the style of dress worn over it. It seems
likely that it sometimes served as the only garment when clothing was in
short supply. Those of the early part of the century are narrow but by
mid- 19th century they were very wide and sometimes had gathered sleeves
and gussets set in across the front. Petticoats also echoed the width and
shape of the skirt.
Shoes were perhaps the least practical part of women's clothing for life
in pioneer Ontario. They were made of silk, cotton, linen or very thin kid
or morocco. In the 1790s they had either a low or wedge heel but by the
beginning of the 19th century soles were flat and remained so until about
1860. Toes fluctuated — pointed in the 1790s, round in the next two
decades, then square, and by about 1860 round again. Boots usually laced
up the inner side of the foot and were made of fabric or soft leather, and
for formal wear of either white or black satin. Many have survived as
mementoes of special occasions or because they were so unsuitable for
everyday life. Silk, cotton and linen footwear did have the advantage that
it could be remade and recovered at home, but the sturdy moccasin was
most worn outdoors and for rough work, sometimes over slippers. In the
1860s low heels came into fashion and heels have remained so ever since.
SUGGESTED READING FOR FASHION CHANGES 1784-1867
buck, anne. Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories (London, Herbert
Women s Costume of the 18th Century (No. 2 in The Gallery of
English Costume Picture Books. Manchester, The William Morris Press
Women's Costume 1800-1835 (No. 3 in The Gallery of English
Costume Picture Books. Manchester, The William Morris Press Ltd., 1952)
Women's Costume 1835-1870 (No. 4 in The Gallery of English
Costume Picture Books. Manchester, The William Morris Press Ltd., 1951)
cunnington, c. w. and p. Handbook of English Costume of the 18th Century
(London, Faber and Faber, 1957)
Handbook of English Costume of the 19th Century (London, Faber
and Faber, 1959)
davenport, millia. The Book of Costume (New York, Crown Publishers Inc.,